Working with citizens to design an accessible route planner

An interview with user experience (UX) designer Claudia Fonseca Pinhão on how the concept team works together with citizens with mobility impairments to develop a prototype of an AI-powered accessible route planner.

The Municipality of Amsterdam is developing a prototype accessible route planner which adapts to the accessibility needs of each user. This initiative is part of the PEER project, a “European collaboration investigating human-AI interaction with the aim of putting the user first, increasing transparency, and making the AI solution personalizable”. It is also part of the broader Amsterdam for All initiative, through which the municipality aims to make the city accessible for all citizens. The project aims to put citizens at the center of every step of the AI lifecycle, starting from design and development, all the way through evaluation. This is facilitated by collaboration with organizations such as Cliëntenbelang, an organization which aims to improve quality of life for people with disabilities. 

UX designer Claudia Fonseca Pinhão provides more insight on how to involve citizens from the target group: people with disabilities who face accessibility challenges. 

Why was it important for you to involve citizens in this project? 

As a UX designer I advocate that the target group should be involved from the beginning and during the whole lifetime of the project. Only they can share their needs, challenges and wishes, so we can make sure we are developing something that is a useful, usable and desirable product.  In this case, we had done previous research and we kept on working with our target group so we were able to add much more nuance and better understand the challenges they face and what we should focus on. 

We already knew that we would use AI as part of the solution (which is not always the most desirable), so we focused on finding the bridge between what are the needs of the target group and what technology and available data sources can offer. 

How did you reach citizens? 

We worked with Cliëntenbelang, which is a client interest organization for people with disabilities.  They made it a lot easier for us to find participants from our target group.  

How was it working with a partner organization? 

Cliëntenbelang gets approached a lot by people who want to do focus groups or user testing, so they are definitely cautious about who they work with.  They want to make sure that an initiative is worthwhile and that it will continue, since a lot of time is invested by participants. Once they agreed to work with us, we identified the criteria used to select participants for each of our sessions, and then they would send an invitation within their network.  They also guided us in how we should word the invitations, how to make the sessions accessible, and other important details to keep in mind when working with our target group. 

What are some challenges you faced in working with citizens on the accessible route planner project? 

Getting new participants each time is challenging. We want to have a diverse group of citizens and ensure that the sessions aren’t biased from always working with the same people. The partner organization also only has access to so many people who are willing and able to come to a session. 

Finding accessible locations as well as the right time for our participants is also a challenge. We had some negative experiences with venue accessibility and we have learned a lot through the process. 

A big challenge we face is that participants will ask us when the accessible route planner will be implemented. This is complicated because we are in very early stages and ultimately we want to have a data standard for all municipalities to follow and best practices for user experience, but we won't build and distribute a new route planner from scratch. We want third parties that are already well implemented to be able to use what we discovered. Anyhow, I believe we should always try to give something back, otherwise participants can get demotivated. One thing we always do is ask them if they want the results of the user study, and we will send it to them afterwards. 

How does your target group view the use of AI? 

Their main concern when it comes to AI is privacy. In general, the participants from our target group are quite experienced with new technologies because they need them for day-to-day life. 

How do you view your role as a user experience designer within the municipality? 

My role involves a different set of tasks, where strategic thinking is one. In this project I see the value of communicating route information to citizens but I also see the potential this information can have for the city. For example, getting to know which areas are less accessible so new urban plans can be prioritized or how to better report problems in the public space. 

 What is your advice for people working on participation with marginalized groups? 

Always go to the experts, such as a client interest group. Go to them as open-minded as possible and be ready to learn.  They can teach you a lot on how to engage with the target group. 

Make sure to be clear with participants on what they can expect to come from their input.  At the same time, try to find small things to deliver to them in order to show that their contribution is valued.    

Keep the accessibility of your sessions top of mind, from your choice of venue to your choice of time. 

Be open to feedback on your sessions. Flexibility is very important.  You might have to adjust the length of your session or adapt your methodology. 

Lastly, you should be open-minded regarding the solutions you develop.  Think beyond a specific technology.  Don’t limit your solutions just to AI, but actually be aware of the needs of your target group.

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